WASHINGTON — “Total chaos.”
That was how President Biden described conditions on the frequently congested Brent Spence Bridge between Covington, Ky., and Cincinnati, where he arrived on Wednesday to tout implementation of his $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, of which $1.5 billion will be used to fix the notorious crossing.
But the phrase, uttered on the banks of the Ohio River, could have just as easily been used to describe the state of affairs on the Potomac, where chaos has reigned for the last two days, as Republicans failed to select a speaker of the House of Representatives. In what is turning out to be an increasingly acrimonious battle, a group of around 20 far-right conservatives are resisting what had once been seen as the all-but-certain elevation of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to the speakership.
Their resistance, which has resulted in six inconclusive votes since Tuesday, has embarrassed mainstream Republicans while providing the White House with a narrative almost too obvious in its juxtapositions.
Flanked by members of both parties, including Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both of whom are Republicans, Biden was happy to bask in the contrast with congressional GOP members, who won control of the House in last November’s election. Two days into the 118th Congress, however, Republicans have managed only to lay bare their ideological and political differences.
“I just think it’s a little embarrassing,” Biden told reporters from the South Lawn of the White House before departing for Kentucky. “And the rest of the world is looking.”
The speakership fight seemed to validate Biden’s argument — made insistently in the months and weeks before last year’s midterms — that the Republican Party had fallen captive to a pro-Trump “MAGA” faction that was uninterested in governing. Inside the West Wing, staffers have been watching the GOP’s internecine fight with quiet relish, recognizing the scenes of intraparty acrimony as a kind of political gift that was best left to unspool on its own.
“I hope they get their act together,” Biden told reporters. By Wednesday afternoon, however, a second day of votes had failed to yield a consensus choice for the speakership. If anything, resistance to McCarthy seemed only to harden in some quarters.
The ambitious Californian may yet prevail, especially since his opponents have not alighted on a viable alternative. If he does, McCarthy will preside over the Republican conference with his power drastically diminished. He is ultimately expected to endorse the kinds of partisan investigations his conservative detractors have demanded.
The White House is preparing for such investigations and — it hopes — a two-year stretch during which Capitol Hill is consumed by the kind of Republican infighting that has been on such vivid display this week. If that turns out to be the case, the White House will seek to highlight the contrast between the two poles of Pennsylvania Avenue, as Biden did on Wednesday.
“We can work together. We can get things done. We can move the nation forward,” he said in his remarks at the Spence Bridge.
The White House said that the joint appearance with McConnell — who is demonized by many liberals for his often-obstructionist leadership of his conference — had been planned well in advance and was not meant to serve as a counterpoint to McCarthy’s public travails.
Still, by publicly embracing the Republican leader, Biden could claim that he was above partisanship, regardless of its sources. “He’s willing to find common ground to get things done for the country,” Biden said of McConnell.
Biden also noted the absence of new House member Greg Landsman, an Ohio Democrat, who was getting a crash course in how Washington works.
“He may be the first freshman ever elected speaker of the House of Representatives,” Biden joked. That isn’t likely, but given the tumult of the last two days, anything is possible.